The Tucker vs. Detroit Epic

Just a few days ago, we watched the Tesla Roadster launch into space. An electrically powered car launched by a visionary who participates in the Mars Society - an organization created for the purpose of establishing human colonies on Mars. An incredible story, where the innovative Elon Musk steps forward announcing the future… Today. After all, it's almost the same catchphrase Preston Tucker used to advertise his project: "The car of the future, today".

In the surprising history of the USA we meet a multitude of characters visionaries and individualists who seek a radical transformation of society through technology and business. There is the trace of Edison, Tesla, Franklin ... People convinced of that egalitarian ideal that has spread throughout the world the image of the United States as the "Country of opportunities". A place where, no matter where you come from or whoever you are, if your idea is revolutionary… it will triumph.

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Even today, the shapes of the Tucker 48 remain spectacular. (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

However, we all know that there is a long way from theory to fact, so all that glitters is not gold here. Despite the fact that in theory this discourse of optimistic inventors working in a society of free competition works perfectly ... The truth is that the market itself creates oligopolies, clientelistic networks, corruption, laws that protect some companies and sink others ... In short, a situation where that of the "Country of opportunities" begins to falter, giving way to "Law of the strongest". It is the contradiction between a people full of energetic pioneers and a "Establishment" where capital and bureaucracy are united by vested interests.

A contradiction that Preston Tucker lived in. A typically American character, full of overwhelming individual energy and a special vision of the future that, however, was crushed by the power of a political-business network that did not stop until it collapsed what some saw as the future and others as a threat. to your position. This was the epic and tragedy of an inventor, Preston Tucker, and his car, the Tucker 48 Sedan.

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Remember that in the Tucker the engine is behind. (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)


Born in Michigan on September 21, 1903, Preston Tucker had an innate ability for the motor world. In fact, with only 16 years old he already managed to repair an old ramshackle car and then sell it. Not only was he a skilled mechanic kid, he was also awake when it came to doing business. However, his first job was not oriented to the corporate world, as he was employed in the Lincoln Park Police Department. Anyway, the reason is most automobile: he did it to be able to drive the large-displacement vehicles used by the Police. In fact, I got noticed for making mechanical changes to the odd unit. Quite a character ...

Later, his open and communicative character leads him to one of the jobs that, in part, I would never stop exercising: seller. And it is that in short ... Every inventor has to have something of a seller. His career as a salesman for a car dealership in Michigan takes him to Memphis, where he manages to be the manager of a major luxury car agency. At last the money begins to flow in, and that for someone like Tucker ... It is just the prelude to new adventures.

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Preston Tucker, genius and figure.

Adventures that led him to participate every year in the Indianapolis 500. Anyone else would have been satisfied with driving, participating in a team ... But Tucker always wanted to go further. For this reason, he managed to convince Harry Miller to create Miller and Tucker Inc in 1935, a racing car company that quickly won contracts such as developing 10 Ford V8s prepared for the tracks. Although we must admit that the premiere was not very good: the engines were overheating and they had to leave in the first race.

Engine overheating aside, it was Tucker's head that didn't stop boiling. Obsessed with the idea of ​​founding his own automobile construction company, he moved to promising California in 1939 to develop the Tucker Combat Car. And yes, we are literally talking about a real fighting car. After all, the winds of war were already blowing in both Europe and Asia, so our audacious businessman saw the business in selling vehicles to the army. An army that finally did not acquire this light armor for Be too fast! It reached more than 180 km / h, at a time when the American military advised against vehicles that exceeded 50 km / h in the heat of battle.

However, it was not a fiasco at all commercial for Tucker, since the vehicle was equipped with a revolutionary mobile turret for machine guns that was purchased en masse by the military. A hemispherical, transparent and highly mobile turret that allowed North American shooters to do their work aboard various Navy assault boats or bombers such as the legendary Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

Tucker had succeeded in business, also providing a technological service to the warfare needs of his country when it most needed it. Many would have left their career there, but the character of our protagonist pushed him further. There was a statistic that kept haunting his head, the one that indicated that in the mid-40s, in the United States, a car accident occurred serious or fatal every 25 seconds.

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The central headlight of the Tucker 48 is directional (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)


With much of the engineering working on vehicles designed for war, the automobile industry was still anchored in the schemes of the 30s. However, and as an effect derived from automotive research for the war situation, innovations had been discovered that could be put into practice in production cars. You just had to have the will to do it, and although some brands -such as Studebaker- launched models with totally new designs after the end of WWII ... the truth is that car designs were still anchored in a pre-war situation.

This possibility of applying innovations -especially related to the field of security- joined a favorable situation for small companies in the sector, since the government decided prioritize contracts with small businesses. Thus, it tried to equalize the enormous benefits that the great companies had obtained during the war to be contractors of arms production. All in all, the situation was perfect for a man like Tucker, eager to launch a car that would expose the security embarrassments of Detroit's greats.

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The impressive rear houses a helicopter engine (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

However, that idea that was his great virtue, it was at the same time that it crushed him. Or rather, what got him crushed. Bringing the colors out of Detroit's powerful industry came at a high price, even more so when Tucker directly accused them of putting profit ahead of the safety of their customers, thereby accusing them of being no less than guilty of thousands of deaths. . In his own words, the big motor companies should be “in the dock".

Coming from anyone else, those statements would have been taken as mere bravado. But Tucker had a project in hand, real possibilities of commercializing it and deep down ... absolutely right. And, of those, there was still no special legislation that required manufacturers to equip their cars with certain safety measures. Lights that left huge blind areas, little or no precise directions, wheels that burst easily, weak bodies, absence of seat belts ...

Long before in 1965 the lawyer Ralph Nader published his famous book “Unsafe at any speed", in which he made a detailed denunciation of how the automobile industry irresponsibly prioritized profitability over safety, Preston Tucker already put the finger on the sore. In fact, there is the anecdote of a meal called by him in Washington to discuss with various congressmen, senators and officials the issue of safety at the wheel. Neither short nor lazy, put a "roast beefLittle done while blaming Detroit greats for the bloody accident images he projected in the dining room.

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The advertising insisted on safety.

Within this very American tradition of man alone against the world, of the individualist pioneer against the system, Tucker positioned himself as the one who should light a new type of car. Affordable, but at the same time powerful and, above all, safe. That car was going to be the Tucker Torpedo.


The problem with Tucker's car was the one that almost always arises when we have an idea that we think is brilliant but then… It is not so easy to carry out. Although in his case the problem was twofold. First materialize the car, and then… Sell it, and with the Detroit giants putting sticks in your wheels! An entire adventure that began when in 1946 he obtained the necessary capital to launch the first phase of the project.

A first phase in which a prototype had to be developed that included all of Tucker's ideas. And that was not something exactly easy, since the rear engine, the four-wheel drive, the injection system, the disc brakes, the magnesium wheels, some adjustable headlights passed through his head ... That seemed a Citroën American. Many of these ideas had to stay on the design board. Design board for which George Lawson was hired in order to make the first sketches and models in clay.

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The Preston Tucker car brand emblem

And here came one of the master plays of Tucker's entrepreneurial side: his mastery of the media. And the fact is that, having already gathered the mechanical qualities that the car opened together with the first sketches of it - where it looked with a much more spatial aesthetic than what it would finally have - decided to publish a report in a national magazine. But beware, how this car was going to be so revolutionary ... It couldn't help but be published in a header of innovation and science. That is why the publication was made in Science Illustrated with the title "Torpedo on wheels".

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The first designer of the project devising the shapes in the clay.

Quickly, the media phenomenon spread by itself. An increasing number of drivers were interested in how to purchase a “Torpedo”, But also many sellers who wanted to have the sale concession. For this they were willing to advance money, which was absolutely necessary for a company eager to capitalize in order to start production. Tucker's media move worked, and the project was moving into a second phase.

A second phase in which the design of the prototype had to be finished and, for more excitement ... before December 31, 1946. For this, and in a commission that would get on the nerves of anyone, the designer Alex Tremulis He was hired on December 24, with just six days to finish the design! Against all odds, the final plans were ready on the last day of the year, at which point they were approved by Tucker as the car was renamed '48 Sedan. Anyway, the battlefields of World War II were still smoking and that of “torpedo”… It could bring bad and recent memories to the consumer's memory.

Bad memories aside, the future looked bright. For starters, the Tucker had an outstanding drag coefficient: just 0. Something that was revolutionary at the time, being the same figure that several high-end sedans offer today. A decisive contribution to this was a body in which the fenders were integrated in a more compact way, with a wraparound perimeter frame that gave greater safety in the event of a collision. In addition, and despite its low height, its interior was extremely habitable.

Shatterproof safety windshield, cutting edge in the 40s (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

At the security level, It included improvements such as a shatterproof safety windshield, a padded front dash, all the controls and controls located on the perimeter of the steering wheel… In addition to a third headlight that rotated along with the wheels, illuminating areas of the curve path that were previously blind. Faro that, although today it is its most identifying aesthetic element, was born as a solution to the impossibility of turning the other two. And despite all this, the pre-production model fell short of the original ideas, since disc brakes, (flammable) magnesium wheels or four-wheel drive were left behind along the way.

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The first sketches that appeared in the press were more futuristic than they later became.

When it comes to mechanics, the attempt to turn the industry upside down was also clearly translated into something unique. So unique that, in fact, of what was to be the engine of the Tucker, only one was built: the one that equipped the first prototype in the presentation to the public. A gigantic six-cylinder boxer with 9 liters, injection system and overhead valves operated by an oil system instead of by camshaft.

In addition, Tucker devised that the engine and transmission were easy to assemble, so that the car could be easily repaired anywhere. His idea was that if the engine broke down, any mechanic could easily replace it with another just by loosening six screws located on various subframes.

Thus, having left behind some key ideas of the project either due to technological impossibility or due to excessive cost ...

The public and the media were summoned to the long-awaited unveiling of the car on June 19, 1947, after a publicity campaign in which double-page advertisements cheered the Tucker to the tune of "15 years for the Car of the Year”. All this in reference to the three decades that its manager said he had been thinking about this model.

The expectation was enormous, and the presentation ceremony ... was quite a show with emotion until the last moment.

A spectacular car, unveiled in a bit of a rush (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)


Tucker came up with a presentation to the way and way he liked to do things, big time. More than 3000 people were invited to spend the day at the factory, where crowds of families and journalists gathered to finally see a car they had already seen dozens of times through Tucker's aggressive press advertising campaign.

However ... the car was not at all ready. Even last night he hadn't finished riding. In fact, when the independent suspensions were being mounted hours before the event, they gave way. It is said that in order to roll it, bricks were placed next to the piers, which acted as a stopper, preventing it from sinking. Also, the transmission jammed and the car couldn't move. All this with the presentation already underway!

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Huge front seats that can accommodate three adults (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

Thus the things, the own Tucker had to do of “master of ceremonies”Improvised, entertaining the audience for almost two hours. As nervousness grew, he introduced his family, made speeches, asked the ladies nicknamed "Tucker girls"Do an impromptu dance number ... All this while behind the scenes the mechanics and engineers struggled to get the car in gear. In fact, when they came out to greet they were still covered in grease.

A scene worthy of the comedies of the Marx Brothers, where even the orchestra had to be asked to play as loud as possible to camouflage the deafening roar of the 9-liter engine. However, Tucker's joy and the car's beautiful shapes once again won over a devoted audience. Although ... Not all. The journalist Drew Pearson found the delay, the noise, the fact that he did not reverse gear and, above all, that part of the coolant was lost as vapor when the car was taken out on stage - remember that it was 65, still remaining decades to the terrible "fog effect”That plagued the stages in the 80s, to the pity of more than one heavy metal who was unable to see the team on stage.

The press echoed this, which was a hard setback for the 48 Sedan. Tucker had to spend an enormous amount of money on a makeover operation, which was in addition to all the money he had to spend to properly finish the car since, as presented, it could not go into production.

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Mechanics from the aeronautical sector, with 6 cylinders and 5.5 liters of displacement (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)


As you can imagine, that huge engine that didn't shut up even the sound of an entire band at full blast was the mechanics' nightmare. Nightmare that ended when, seeing the impossibility of continuing with this engine, Tucker set his eyes on the helicopter industry.

Specifically, on a six-cylinder boxer engine that Tucker borrowed from the aviation industry since it was devised for helicopters by the Franklin company. An unexpected change that the project engineers knew how to fit into the car's rear engine hole, managing to get 166CV out of its 5 liters of displacement, after replacing the air cooling with a liquid one. The only problem was its massive weight, but in return it demonstrated bomb-proof reliability when tested for 5 hours at full capacity!

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Tuckermatic… (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

With the engine change, the transmission also had to be changed. For this, the “Tuckermatic”, With only 27 pieces compared to the 90 that would normally be needed to build a transmission. After not a few problems, it was finally possible to assemble everything properly and ... Yes, unlike what happened with the prototype, now the 48 Sedan could be reversed. At the end of the day, the person in charge of this device was the same one who created the transmission "dynaflow”For the Buick.

Fixed prototype problems at last the 48 sedan was ready for your production. In fact, and to avoid any problem with the supply of engines, Tucker bought the Franklin factory. The capital needed to make the leap was achieved in two ways. Launching $ 17 million in stock, and offering buyers the “accessories program", Where they bought extras like the radio or the luggage rack before the car went into production.

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Detail of the controls, all arranged next to the steering wheel (Photo: Darin Schnabel © 2017 RM Sotheby's)

So, and despite the rush and some certainly hilarious episodes, at the end of 1947 the Tucker 48 Sedan was already a definite reality. A reliable, affordable, safe car ... And made by someone outside the "Big Three" Detroit: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

Finally, the Tucker plant in Chicago got down to work with the assembly line, assembling the 50 pre-production cars required by law before going into mass marketing.

For a few weeks, Tucker rolled them around the United States. The reaction of the people wherever they went was crazy. It seemed that yes, that was the “country of opportunities".

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Advertise with the multiple Tucker previews.


Imagine the nervousness in the offices of some managers. That little man who forged himself as a builder of artillery turrets for military vehicles had made the leap. He had the model, the sympathy of thousands of consumers, a distribution network, a factory and an innate talent for business… In addition, he based his publicity on the responsibility of the Detroit industry in thousands of deaths behind the wheel. There is no doubt that good old Tucker was, at that time, the number one enemy of the great American motor brands.

They had to stop him by all means. And that is where that story that we commented at the beginning, the one that tells us about a "Country of opportunities" ruled by the "Free competition"… It starts to leak everywhere. Large companies quickly began to move their political springs, putting a whole network of interests and privileges to work against Tucker and his car.

The strategy was based on three pillars well managed from the spheres of power. The press, supplies and the courts.

Tucker only needed one more thing to be able to mass-build his car: steel. Paradoxically, when he went to negotiate with a factory, the doors were always closed. It literally ran out of suppliers. All this wrapped in a dark campaign of political and financial pressure leading to the isolation of the new brand.

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Evolution of the Torpedo prototype to the 48 Sedan pre-series.

But the hardest hit It came from the Administration of Justice, when the Securities Exchange Commission and the Prosecutor's Office accused Tucker of fraud for the accessories sale program. As we saw before, this was one of the ways to capitalize the company, giving the buyer the option of purchasing certain extras before receiving the car, thus also having a guaranteed place on the waiting list for delivery. The Justice accused Tucker of creating a massive scam, hoarding money even knowing that he was not going to manufacture the car. Nothing could be further from the truth, since the company did the impossible to launch the model. There is History to prove it ...

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Tucker in Chicago, celebrating his acquittal after the trial.

The Story… And the jury's decision, since Tucker and his company were innocent of the trial. However, the damage was done. Even more so when the third pillar of the strategy against the 48 Sedan was the press, which for months was defaming the image of Tucker and his model in a clear collusion with the Detroit industry. Industry that spoke through the mouth of Senator Homer Ferguson, which has gone down in history as “executioner”From the Tucker.

Despite the acquittal, the project has already he was touched to death. Without suppliers, with retired investors wondering what would happen in the end ... Tucker had to say goodbye to the dream of the 48 Sedan. And that, in a last attempt, did numerous tests in Indianapolis to demonstrate the quality of the car. In fact, in those tests an accident was recorded in which the mechanic Offut Eddie came out unharmed and by his own foot. The car was safe. But it was also certain that everything would remain in a dream.

A dream of which 51 units were produced counting the prototype, 47 of which are preserved. A true milestone in the history of the American engine that today is valued at more than half a million dollars. Or even more, as it shows the still hot sale of Preston Tucker's 48 staff.

After all this Tucker adventure he did not give up, and he tried to rebuild his automobile career in Brazil together with a Russian-American engineer developing a sports car called "Carioca" that never materialized. After all, and as he himself said at the end of the trial "Even Henry Ford failed the first time."

Be that as it may, the truth is that, after the years, and as it would happen to John Z. DeLorean later, Tucker has remained a pioneer when it comes to betting on safety at the wheel. And he has also gone down in history as one of those optimistic, visionary and individualistic characters so typical of the North American narrative.

After all, even the great Francis Ford Coppola did a movie about him.

What do you think?

Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.


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